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The Politics of Performance in Miss Saigon: Prostitutes, Pineapples and Globalization

The Politics of Performance in Miss Saigon: Prostitutes, Pineapples and Globalization

The article “The Heat is On…in Manila” at www.worldroom.com starts with the line: “Miss Saigon has finally come home.” The article explains that the Philippines, not London or Vietnam, is the true home of the musical because its lead, Lea Salonga and many of the cast were Filipinos. The production of Miss Saigon however is less a theater production than a metaphor for globalization.

This paper hopes to respond to the following questions: How can we study Miss Saigon as a metaphor for the globalization of culture? What does Miss Saigon perform that audiences all over the world get hooked to it? How does the production participate in the post-Vietnam war discourse? How has the “theater of spectacle” been used as a tool of both colonization and globalization?

Miss Saigon as Commodity

The production, produced by Cameron Mackintosh, opened on 20 September 1989 at the Theater Royal Drury Lane in London. It was reportedly written by composer Claude-Michel Shonber and lyricist Alain Boubil when “they saw a photograph of a Vietnamese girl about to board a plan from Ho Chi Minh City to the United States, where her father, and ex-GI was waiting for her.”1

            According to London’s West End Theater Guide, from the time Miss Saigon opened to the time is closed in London on 30 October 1999, it had played 4,264 performances and was the longest running show at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. In London alone, it had made a profit of over 21 million pounds, making it the third most profitable musical in the history of British theater.

            More than twenty eight million people have watched Miss Saigon in twelve countries and seventy-eight cities. It is also considered to be among the most high-tech productions ever mounted. Dave Lunrssen reports that “a dozen IBM and Apple computers trigger the 200-plus set changes, 50-some automated scenery effects, over 400 traditional lights plus 400 Vari-lights capable of casting 230 colors in nine patterns…” He writes further, “Miss Saigon across the country is a military-style operation with smoke and fog machines, a 1959 Cadillac and one 700-pound scale model of a Huey helicopter with its Animatronic pilot, Virgil.”2

Theatergoers have watched it either in English or in one of the seven languages it had been translated into. Many have paid more than a hundred dollars for their ticket. In

the Philippines, ticket prices ranged from 250 (5 dollars) to 4,000 pesos (80 dollars). If one considers that the minimum wage is only 6 dollars a day and that domestic helpers earn only 40 dollars a month in the Philippines, Miss Saigon was extraordinarily expensive. Tickets for the performances in Singapore ranged from 50-125 Singapore dollars. This is approximately 25% of the monthly wage (350 dollars) of a Filipino domestic worker.

            Fans have bought Miss Saigon cassettes, videos on the making of Miss Saigon, large badges, bucket hats, baseball caps, mouse pads, and T-shirts. Those who failed to buy these items at the theater could easily secure them through online.

            Internet marketing has indeed pushed sales of the production. The New York Internet marketing agency T3 media, for example, developed a site for Miss Saigon called www.miss-saigon.com. According to T3 Media President Michael Diamant, the Miss Saigon site enabled fans “to be completely immersed in an environment reflective of the themes and details of the production.: Thus, it featured Real Audio and Video clips, games online “concession stands” for show merchandise, photo databases, historical background information, an online trailer complete with musical accompaniment and study guides.”

            What makes the marketing of this commodity more complex in Southeast Asia, however, are the colonial histories of the countries in the region, the existing poverty brought about by economic liberalization policies, and the interplay of gender and race issues.

Miss Saigon and Canned Pineapples as Metaphors for Globalization

Fredric Jameson defines globalization as “an untotalizable totality, which intensifies binary relations between its parts, mostly nations, but also regions and groups, which however, continue to articulate themselves in the modes of national identities.” What Jameson emphasizes is the tension and antagonism between parties involved, and “the struggle to define itself against the binary other.”3

            Miss Saigon can be read as a metaphor for globalization because ultimately, it is not different from the raw materials, such as pineapple, processed by cheap labor in a multinational factory (e.g. Dole, Del Monte) and sold right back as canned dessert to a developing country with the aid of local businessmen and politicians who espouse the liberalization of industries. In these developing countries, many of which are former colonies of Europe and the United States, these products are more appealing because the people have been conditioned to believe that everything the colonizer produces is superior to that of local products. Hence, the canned pineapple is sweeter and more uniformly cut than the one from the local market.

            What is crucial about Miss Saigon is the West’s construction of a Vietnamese woman as a prostitute who annihilates herself at the end of the play. The producers cast Asians (the favorite source for cheap labor) through a search depicted in the video The Making of Miss Saigon as similar to that of a beauty pageant, as the producers went to New York, Los Angeles, Hawaii, and Manila looking for the perfect Kim. Then, they sold the finished product right back to Asia.

In the Philippines, the production displaced other local performances and artists so as to accommodate a supposedly new and much interesting “import”. By prioritizing Miss Saigon at the expense of local culture, theater director Behn Cervantes states that “[the] Cultural Center of the Philippines as a quasi-government institution [thus] officially states that Philippine culture is indeed inferior to Western Culture. It smacks of the worst kind of colonial mentality that the Center asked the resident companies to step aside for this modernized version of Madame Butterfly.”4

            What is disconcerting is that audiences all over the world filled the theater each night of the performance. The consumers found in this “product” the same appeal that perhaps they find in Coca-cola, a drink the world is addicted to, and to go back to our original metaphor, the canned pineapple, which comes sliced or diced, and ready to mix in one’s fruit salad. According to Julie Po, head of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, Miss Saigon can be seen as “a surplus overpriced export product re-channeled to the Philippine market after the European and U.S markets have been saturated. In the spirit of globalization, it is part of the big business of exporting media and culture at an overpriced in the pursuit of big bucks and colonial propaganda.”5

Decoding the Dream: Confronting History

The play’s plot has been described by critics and reviewers as follows: “the story of a US Marine who is forced to leave his Asian bride behind during the hasty evacuation of Saigon,”6 “the story of a G.I. and a prostitute in Saigon, during the war,”7 and the “simple culture clash love story of an American soldier and a young Vietnamese girl.”8 The play however is more than a retelling of the Madame Butterfly/Pinkerton story through the Vietnam War backdrop of Kim and Chris. The Asian women/Western man love story is the love/hate story  between the colonized subject and the colonizer. It is possible to read in Miss Saigon the contradictions of the postcolonial subject as represented by Kim.

            In Miss Saigon, we see the love triangle plot of the romance mode. Kim rejects Thuy, the communist soldier (representing evil in the play) to whom she was betrothed, and falls in love with the American soldier, Chris (representing hope). Incidentally, President George Bush’s interviews immediately after the September 11 bombings follow this dichotomy: on one hand, America (including its soldiers) representing everything that is good and strong, and everyone else (Thuy, communists, ‘terrorists,’ all those against America) as evil.

Also, Hollywood’s incessant portrayal of the American military hero in the East, cemented the image of the American as “conquering hero.” It is actually this image that is reproduced in the Miss Saigon plot.

            The perpetuation of the “conquering hero” myth in post-War Asia is so effective that it has practically erased all memory of the crimes committed by the United States in the region. For instance, numerous historians have documented the brutal treatment (including hamleting, torture, destruction of property, burning of villages) of Filipinos during the Philippine-American War of 1899-1913 when America succeeded in colonizing the Philippines. Renato Constantino calls it the “original Vietnamization”9 and Jonathan Fast calls it “the first Vietnam.”10

            The constructed fantasy of the colonized is evident in the play’s first scene which features the song “The American Dream.” Gigi, one of the bar girls, and Kim, the lead, sing these lyrics:

“…The movie in my mind

The dream they leave behind

A scene I can’t erase

And in a strong G.I.’s embrace

Flee this life

Flee this place

The movie plays and plays

The screen before me fills

He takes me to New York

He gives me dollar bills…”

The bars in Saigon were filled with women with only one dream – to marry an American G.I., migrate to the United States, and have dollars in their pockets. This is not just their fairy tale but a reality they wish for themselves.

            This attitude towards American servicemen, however, is also apparent in most parts in Asia. It is this same discourse of “the white man as liberator from poverty” that we see in bars in Thailand and Korea, classified ads, mail order bride catalogs, and Internet pages. The book Hello, My Big Honey (2000) by David Walker and Richard Erlich, chronicles the relationships between Thai bar girls and foreign men through letters and interviews. The book also attests to how the Bangkok bar scene has been influenced by the Vietnam bar scene:

            In the late 1970s and early 1980s many phrases traveled to Bangkok from the American GI bars in Saigon: “Cheap Charlie,” “Number One (or Ten if you’re really bad),”I love you too much,” “No money, no honey,” “I buy, you pay” are expression which are nearly extinct… The Bangkok bar scene has mutated greatly since the Vietnam war, when American troops on R & R (rest and recreation) or more popularly I & I (intoxication and intercourse) – helped create Southeast Asia’s bar culture11

In its introduction, Hello, My Big Honey shows how the “Madam Butterfly” syndrome can be seen in the Southeast Asian bar girls, although in a “clumsy, fallacy-riddled way, while the interviews with the girls reveal their contradictions: they are both attracted and repulsed by the foreign customer called farang; they hold to believe yet disbelieve his promises; they seem at once to be both victim and predator, seeking yet feigning love, and wanting only the foreigners’ money.”12 The story of Kim is similarly played in the camp towns adjoining military bases in Korea. According to Katherine H.S. Moon’s Sex among Allies, there is a complex stratification system among prostitutes, with women married to servicemen occupying the top of the kijich’on social ladder, followed by women who have entered kyeyak tonggo or contract cohabilitation. Moon notes:

            …All the woman I men in the camp towns either actively dremed of had dreamd of leaving prostitution and leading so-called normal lives, marrying a GI, having a family and a home. Some had tried to leave kijich’on prostitution and learn vocational skills, and work in normal jobs, e.g., factories. But I heard many sotries of women returning to kijich’on work because they could not adapt psychologically to the “normal world” or could not live on the low wages…13

As we compare these data on Thai and Korean prostitutes and the women in Miss Saigon, the play seems to have accurately portrayed the bar girl’s dream of marrying a G.I, fleeing poverty and having a “normal life.” However, what it failed to portray is the fact that the bars situated near military bases in countries such as Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam and sex touring in countries such as Thailand are by-products of the complex relationships between these “third world countries” and the United States. Moreover, it is the American agony that takes center stage in the play: Chris agonizes over his role in Kim’s life in the song “Why God Why?” John agonizes over interracial children in the song “Bui Doi.” Ellen agonizes about her husband’s other woman in “Now That I’ve Seen Her,” and Chris and Ellen agonize together about the future of his son in “The Confrontation.”

            Miss Saigon is thus more about the agony of Americans than the desperate situation of Asian Women. And why not? To speak of the prostitution that has led Kim to meet Chris would be to speak about poverty and to speak about poverty would mean speaking about the history of (neo)colonialism. Thus, it is the dilemma of the American as victim of war by his own government that has prevailed. Jim Nielsen’s Warring Fictions (1998) points out the continuity and revisions of war myths and the recreation of Vietnam through the soldiers’ narratives. It is this post-Vietnam War discourse heavily centered on the American soldier that Miss Saigon participates in, even as it professes to be “simply a tragic love story with the Vietnman war as backdrop.”14

            Several scenes of the play may be read as “interrogative texts.” The song “Bui Doi” is an indictment of the prejudice towards interracial children. “Movie in My Mind” is an ironic look at the cultural imperialism signified by the Hollywood movie. “The American Dream” even satirizes imperialist values. Even Kim’s suicide at the end of the play can be read as an act of empowerment, not simply as sacrifice, because she rejects the decision made by Chris and Ellen and forces them to take her son Tam to the US.

            However, the play is first and foremost, a theater of spectacle, and as such, expects its audiences to be mesmerized by the drama unfolding, stirred by the haunting melodies, awed by the helicopter, and it turn, weep for the tragedy of a Vietnamese woman, and leave the theater with a feeling of catharsis. This theater of spectacle is as much as tool of globalization at the turn of the 21st century as other cultural forms such as vaudevilles, and Hollywood films.

Notes:

1. Alain Boubil and Claude Schonberg. In www.theaterhistory.com         . Date accessed: October 20, 2007.

2.  Dave Luhrssen, www.shepherd-express.com.

3. Fredric Jameson, “Notes on Globalization as a Philosophical Issue,” In The Cultures of Globalization, edited by Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi, Durham: Duke University Press, 1998, p. xii.

4. Behn Cervantes, [from a column] Businesswrold, 11 September 2000.

5. Julie Po, “Cultural Issues are National Concerns,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 19 September 2000.

6. Tannenbum, Creative Loafing Online, www.CLN.com, Date accessed: 17 October 2007

7. Bryce, www.NandoNext.com, Date accessed: 17 October 2007

8. Donovan, www.digitalcity.com, Date accessed: 17 October 2007

9. Renato Constantino, The Philippines: A Past Revisited, Manila: Renato Constantino, 1975.

10. Jonathan Fast, Conspiracy for Empire: Big Business, Corruption, and the Politics of Imperialism and America, Manila: Foundation for Nationalist Studies, 1995.

11. David Walker and Richard Ehlrich, eds. Hello, My Big Honey, San Francisco: Last Gap, 14

12. Ibid.

13. Katherine Moon, Sex Among Allies, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 26.

14 Jim Nielsen, Warring Fictions, University of Mississippi Press, 1998.

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